North Carolinians treasure their reputation as leaders in “The New South.” And we have every right to do so. Now as voters, pundits, politicians, and others are decrying the state of civic and political discourse in our state and nation, we are leaders once again as we seek solutions. Amazingly, North Carolinians started working on this problem a quarter century ago and created a model that on a small scale has been impactful.
Wildacres Leadership Initiative was on solid ground – even inspired – when it created the William C. Friday Fellowship in 1994. The fellowship was named for the long-time leader of the state’s university system who was admired for his civility and his ability to work with diverse people for the betterment of North Carolina. At that time, Dr. Friday said, “The greatest need in our state and country is for a generation of leaders with moral principles and ethical standards … with an unshakeable commitment to courage and fairness with grace and courtesy and decency.” It is a statement that could well have been written today.
The fellowship recognized the importance of positive human relations and embraced the idea that gifted leaders of differing backgrounds and political and philosophical persuasions have the capacity to solve perplexing societal problems at the local, state, and national levels.
It went further and created a framework in which emerging leaders could learn the skills to do it. Twenty at a time, The Fellowship started identifying emerging leaders, bringing them together and helping them hone their human relations skills and eventually become part of a network that works effectively for the betterment of North Carolina. A core belief is that differences do not have to result in polarization, and that the kind of gridlock we see at many levels and in many venues today is avoidable.
Being a Friday fellow represents a commitment of substantial time and energy. A carefully selected group of emerging leaders gathers at least six times over two years for intense interaction over extended, four-day weekends. Preparation is required including research, writing, and study. Expenses such as food and lodging are covered. There is a rigorous screening process, and it consistently has produced an impressive pool of candidates who understand the demands of the program and also appreciate the network they will become a part of and the lifetime of rewards that come from the training they will receive.
Some 200 Friday Fellowship graduates are now scattered about the state and are quietly influencing decision making from their neighborhoods to the highest levels of statewide policy. Included among them are John Drescher, executive editor of The News and Observer; John Hood, head of the John Locke Foundation; and Deborah Ross, a recent candidate for the U.S. Senate.
As rancor has escalated and become commonplace in the public arena, we have an even greater need for The Friday Fellowship than when it was created and named in honor of Dr. Friday, whose actions – tackling challenging problems, gathering people of different backgrounds and philosophies around the table, and ultimately finding solutions and even consensus – were the model for the fellowship program.
The fellowship has mostly flown below the radar since its creation almost a quarter century ago. We are going to change that. The fellowship has an important role to play in the future of North Carolina, and Bill Friday’s example is an important one for us to remember and emulate. We must make sure that happens.
North Carolina will continue to lead. This summer, we are assembling another cohort of Friday Fellows. The fellowship is casting its net broadly, and we will be mining both urban and rural areas from the mountains to the sea for emerging leaders. As we seek to broaden the reach of the fellowship, deepen our impact, and diversify supportive partnerships, we need the help of individuals, business leaders, foundation executives, and others who are in positions to recognize the unique qualities we are seeking and make recommendations to us.
The Friday Fellowship has drawn accolades for almost 25 years now and participants have included persons from diverse occupations and backgrounds – entrepreneurs, educators, lawyers, public officials, business people, non-profit administrators, and others. To find information regarding participation or to nominate a person for consideration as a Friday Fellow, please visit the Fellowship website at FridayFellowship.org. Nominations to be considered for this fall’s class are due by August 15.
Abdul Rasheed is executive director of the William C. Friday Fellowship and founder and former CEO of the N.C. Community Development Initiative, an organization created to improve housing for under-served and distressed populations.